‘My Life as a Feminist Punk’: An Interview With Kathleen Hanna

Left: Bikini Kill performs at The Hollywood Palladium. (Debi Del Grande). Right: Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk.

If you are a third-wave feminist like myself, you probably wanted to be Kathleen Hanna at some point in your life. As ‘90s Riot Grrrls, we hung on her every word as she brazenly demanded equality as the unapologetic singer of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill

In her memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk (out May 14 from Ecco), Hanna shares her journey from a challenging childhood through college and her first shows to love, Lyme disease and Le Tigre. Intimate and candid, Hanna graciously explores it all, including the duplicity of the punk scene with its caring collectivity and underlying exclusivity, racism and misogyny. 

I was lucky enough to chat with Kathleen Hanna about her book, the writing process and how her feminism has changed over time.

Karla J. Strand: Thanks so much for speaking with me. I really enjoyed the book—congratulations on its forthcoming publication. What made this the right time to write it?

Kathleen Hanna: I was leaving New York to move to California so I could be closer to my mom and so my son Julius could be near his grandma. When packing, you have to go through your whole place and decide what to keep and what not to keep. So, I was looking to make peace with what happened in the ‘90s. I had “Big T” Trauma and “tiny little t” trauma that I was holding onto. Moving allowed me to process through it and pack it in a box. And writing the book helped me through that. I’m really proud of this book. I didn’t want to hold onto the trauma and pass it on to my kid. I didn’t want to hold onto it all since I’d be performing songs from that time period again with Bikini Kill.

Strand: Is there going to be an audio version? Because reading the book really feels like sitting and listening to a friend share her life and stories! 

Hanna: Yes, there is an audiobook! 

Strand: I can’t wait to listen to you read it! The book is framed with humor, and you’re really funny, but you’re also revealing some candid memories and sharing some difficult lessons. From sexual assault and physical abuse, to losing friends like Kurt Cobain, to abortion and living with a chronic illness. What was the most challenging part of writing the book? 

Hanna: All of it basically sucked! I had to take a lot of breaks to have time to process things, go to therapy, do EMDR… I remembered some things when writing the book. Like the story from the book with the class president, who I wasn’t even really dating, but after I broke up with him, he started stalking me. One day, I was practicing for a school play, and he cornered me. He started throwing chairs at me and screaming at me. When I remembered it, it was like I was watching this other girl, like a movie, and I just felt so bad for her. Like, here is this guy, bigger than me, and he started throwing desks at me and calling me names. All I could do was cower in the corner and protect my head. But I was more outraged for this “other” person than I was for myself. I used to just say, “It’s this funny thing that happened to me,” but it’s not funny! It was terrifying. Now, I understand the gravity of the situation I was in, but I didn’t at that time. And I didn’t have anyone to turn to. 

Actually, when I was recording the audiobook, there were a couple of times I had to turn the mic off. Reading the part about telling Kathi Wilcox about my rape in the Target parking lot was one of those times. I was so worried, but when I was finally able to open up about it, and someone actually listened and believed me, it was so powerful. It was the off-ramp to the fucked up freeway I was on. It was like the sky opened up! And when I read that part, I had to just stop and cry.   

Strand: Maybe from relief. 

Hanna: Yes, that’s exactly what it was! I was so relieved to finally have someone listen to me and believe me. 

I used to just say, ‘It’s this funny thing that happened to me,’ but it’s not funny! It was terrifying.

Kathleen Hanna

Strand: So many survivors are afraid of not being believed. Of course, feminism is a main theme throughout your life and in the book. You also say in the book that people calling you out for Riot Grrrl’s racism was one of the best things that happened to you. How has your feminism evolved over time? What advice would you give young feminists today, especially in the wake of the overturning of Roe and increasing attacks on the trans community?

Hanna: I’ll answer that with another anecdote that’s in the book and is a perfect example. I used to start every show in the ’90s by saying, “Girls to the front.” Like, we weren’t the first girl punk band or rock band; there have always been feminist punks. But there was a time when there were only three girls in the room among all these guys, and so you needed to say, for their safety, if nothing else, “Girls, come to the front.”

But that was the ‘90s, and things have changed since then, our culture has changed. So I stopped saying that after a while because I didn’t need to anymore. There started being more girls in the room. It’s a different room now than it was in 1992. I don’t want a man of color to be pushed to the back at a Bikini Kill show! I don’t want a trans or nonbinary person to be pushed to the back of the show! Sometimes, the audience will chant it, and I intervene when I hear it. It’s been used negatively and to exclude people, and I don’t want that. Now I say to the straight, white cis men: “Can you take a look around you and see the space you’re taking up? Maybe move to the back or see who else is around and make space, can you do that, please?”

Strand: And they do it! That’s delightful. Can you share some of the upcoming projects you’re working on? Anything else you’d like to share with Ms. readers?

Hanna: Yes, Bikini Kill is back on tour in the U.S. starting in August! I also just want to say that Ms. Magazine totally changed my life and my mom’s life. I remember her having it and I was so excited to know that I’d be interviewed for Ms. My mom will be thrilled when I tell her.

Kathleen Hanna’s book, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk, goes on sale on May 14. Throughout the last two weeks of May, she’ll be on tour promoting the book, and you can get your tickets here

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Karla J. Strand is the gender and women’s studies librarian for the University of Wisconsin. She completed her doctorate in information science via University of Pretoria in South Africa with a background in history and library science, and her research centers on the role of libraries and knowledge in empowering women and girls worldwide. Tweet her @karlajstrand.